A Southern California family vacationing on Lake Don Pedro came across a partially submerged fishing boat shortly after noon Wednesday, finding retired Neil Hafley Elementary School Principal Joe Wickham clinging onto the end of his 20-foot-long Wellcraft.
Since he went missing late Tuesday, it was estimated that the Ripon resident was probably in the water some 12 to 18 hours overnight and into the morning.
Family members, including his wife Denise and her close friend Joanne Ballestreri, had already been looking for Wickham in the darkness. His wife reported him missing when he didn’t return home from the latest of his many fishing trips on the lake.
Wickham’s wife had tried to classify him as a missing person with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Department Tuesday night after finding his truck and their boat trailer parked near the marina he has always used to enter the lake. A requirement for a missing person status requires a 24-hour time frame, however.
Recreational boaters launching their crafts onto the water early Wednesday morning were asked by the frantic family members to look for his 20-foot fishing boat. That prompted the find of his wrecked craft that was said to be located two-thirds under water with Wickham reportedly hanging onto the stern.
Ballestreri said the boat rental operation at the marina had put one boat out searching the lake and had offered the family a boat to use in their effort to find Wickham. Searchers had printed flyers asking vacationers to be aware of Wickham being missing on the lake.
It took the vacationing family with two teens to get the Ripon man out of the lake and into their boat. Ballestreri said one of the teenagers put a life ring around Wickham’s neck after jumping into the water next to him.
The longtime educator was taken across the water to the marina where medics were waiting. Witnesses said the emergency responders worked on him for some 30 minutes before a medi-flight helicopter arrived, touching down by the dam to take him on board.
The former principal was airlifted to Memorial North Hospital in Modesto where he was reported to be heavily sedated on Thursday, but in stable condition in the intensive care unit.
The cause of the boat wreck is presently a mystery to his family and fellow fishermen. They said Wickham had been on Don Pedro many times fishing by himself and with them along on outings as well. He would usually hit the lake shortly after dawn and return home in the late afternoon.
It was also noted that the boat had to be towed onto a sand bar before a salvage crew could begin pumping it out. Friends said Wickham had his cell phone and a two-way emergency radio with him in the boat.